Wednesday, 19 October 2011

The Johannine Letters (3): I John 2: 12-29

‘You are strong and the word of God abides in you’ (I John 2: 14) ... The bells of the Monastery of Saint John on the island of Patmos

Patrick Comerford

I John 2: 12-29

12 Γράφω ὑμῖν, τεκνία,
ὅτι ἀφέωνται ὑμῖν αἱ ἁμαρτίαι διὰ τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ.
13 γράφω ὑμῖν, πατέρες,
ὅτι ἐγνώκατε τὸν ἀπ' ἀρχῆς.
γράφω ὑμῖν, νεανίσκοι,
ὅτι νενικήκατε τὸν πονηρόν.

14 ἔγραψα ὑμῖν, παιδία,
ὅτι ἐγνώκατε τὸν πατέρα.
ἔγραψα ὑμῖν, πατέρες,
ὅτι ἐγνώκατε τὸν ἀπ' ἀρχῆς.
ἔγραψα ὑμῖν, νεανίσκοι,
ὅτι ἰσχυροί ἐστε
καὶ ὁ λόγος τοῦ θεοῦ ἐν ὑμῖν μένει
καὶ νενικήκατε τὸν πονηρόν.

15 Μὴ ἀγαπᾶτε τὸν κόσμον μηδὲ τὰ ἐν τῷ κόσμῳ. ἐάν τις ἀγαπᾷ τὸν κόσμον, οὐκ ἔστιν ἡ ἀγάπη τοῦ πατρὸς ἐν αὐτῷ: 16 ὅτι πᾶν τὸ ἐν τῷ κόσμῳ, ἡ ἐπιθυμία τῆς σαρκὸς καὶ ἡ ἐπιθυμία τῶν ὀφθαλμῶν καὶ ἡ ἀλαζονεία τοῦ βίου, οὐκ ἔστιν ἐκ τοῦ πατρὸς ἀλλ' ἐκ τοῦ κόσμου ἐστίν. 17 καὶ ὁ κόσμος παράγεται καὶ ἡ ἐπιθυμία αὐτοῦ, ὁ δὲ ποιῶν τὸ θέλημα τοῦ θεοῦ μένει εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα.

18 Παιδία, ἐσχάτη ὥρα ἐστίν, καὶ καθὼς ἠκούσατε ὅτι ἀντίχριστος ἔρχεται, καὶ νῦν ἀντίχριστοι πολλοὶ γεγόνασιν: ὅθεν γινώσκομεν ὅτι ἐσχάτη ὥρα ἐστίν. 19 ἐξ ἡμῶν ἐξῆλθαν, ἀλλ' οὐκ ἦσαν ἐξ ἡμῶν: εἰ γὰρ ἐξ ἡμῶν ἦσαν, μεμενήκεισαν ἂν μεθ' ἡμῶν: ἀλλ' ἵνα φανερωθῶσιν ὅτι οὐκ εἰσὶν πάντες ἐξ ἡμῶν. 20 καὶ ὑμεῖς χρῖσμα ἔχετε ἀπὸ τοῦ ἁγίου, καὶ οἴδατε πάντες. 21 οὐκ ἔγραψα ὑμῖν ὅτι οὐκ οἴδατε τὴν ἀλήθειαν, ἀλλ' ὅτι οἴδατε αὐτήν, καὶ ὅτι πᾶν ψεῦδος ἐκ τῆς ἀληθείας οὐκ ἔστιν. 22 Τίς ἐστιν ὁ ψεύστης εἰ μὴ ὁ ἀρνούμενος ὅτι Ἰησοῦς οὐκ ἔστιν ὁ Χριστός; οὗτός ἐστιν ὁ ἀντίχριστος, ὁ ἀρνούμενος τὸν πατέρα καὶ τὸν υἱόν. 23 πᾶς ὁ ἀρνούμενος τὸν υἱὸν οὐδὲ τὸν πατέρα ἔχει: ὁ ὁμολογῶν τὸν υἱὸν καὶ τὸν πατέρα ἔχει. 24 ὑμεῖς ὃ ἠκούσατε ἀπ' ἀρχῆς ἐν ὑμῖν μενέτω: ἐὰν ἐν ὑμῖν μείνῃ ὃ ἀπ' ἀρχῆς ἠκούσατε, καὶ ὑμεῖς ἐν τῷ υἱῷ καὶ ἐν τῷ πατρὶ μενεῖτε. 25 καὶ αὕτη ἐστὶν ἡ ἐπαγγελία ἣν αὐτὸς ἐπηγγείλατο ἡμῖν, τὴν ζωὴν τὴν αἰώνιον.

26 Ταῦτα ἔγραψα ὑμῖν περὶ τῶν πλανώντων ὑμᾶς. 27 καὶ ὑμεῖς τὸ χρῖσμα ὃ ἐλάβετε ἀπ' αὐτοῦ μένει ἐν ὑμῖν, καὶ οὐ χρείαν ἔχετε ἵνα τις διδάσκῃ ὑμᾶς: ἀλλ' ὡς τὸ αὐτοῦ χρῖσμα διδάσκει ὑμᾶς περὶ πάντων, καὶ ἀληθές ἐστιν καὶ οὐκ ἔστιν ψεῦδος, καὶ καθὼς ἐδίδαξεν ὑμᾶς, μένετε ἐν αὐτῷ.

28 Καὶ νῦν, τεκνία, μένετε ἐν αὐτῷ, ἵνα ἐὰν φανερωθῇ σχῶμεν παρρησίαν καὶ μὴ αἰσχυνθῶμεν ἀπ' αὐτοῦ ἐν τῇ παρουσίᾳ αὐτοῦ.

29 ἐὰν εἰδῆτε ὅτι δίκαιός ἐστιν, γινώσκετε ὅτι καὶ πᾶς ὁ ποιῶν τὴν δικαιοσύνην ἐξ αὐτοῦ γεγέννηται.

I John 2: 12-29

I am writing to you, little children,
because your sins are forgiven on account of his name.
I am writing to you, fathers,
because you know him who is from the beginning.
I am writing to you, young people,
because you have conquered the evil one.
I write to you, children,
because you know the Father.
I write to you, fathers,
because you know him who is from the beginning.
I write to you, young people,
because you are strong
and the word of God abides in you,
and you have overcome the evil one.

Do not love the world or the things in the world. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world; for all that is in the world – the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches – comes not from the Father but from the world. And the world and its desire are passing away, but those who do the will of God live for ever.

Children, it is the last hour! As you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. From this we know that it is the last hour. They went out from us, but they did not belong to us; for if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us. But by going out they made it plain that none of them belongs to us. But you have been anointed by the Holy One, and all of you have knowledge. I write to you, not because you do not know the truth, but because you know it, and you know that no lie comes from the truth. Who is the liar but the one who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, the one who denies the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son has the Father; everyone who confesses the Son has the Father also. Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you will abide in the Son and in the Father. And this is what he has promised us, eternal life.

I write these things to you concerning those who would deceive you. As for you, the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and so you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things, and is true and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, abide in him.

And now, little children, abide in him, so that when he is revealed we may have confidence and not be put to shame before him at his coming.

If you know that he is righteous, you may be sure that everyone who does right has been born of him.

Part 1: I John 2: 12-14

This poetic section in I John deals with our true relationship with God in Christ. The two main assurances the writer is giving to the recipients of this letter are found in verses 12 and 14, and concern the principle difficulties with the false propagandists. These two assurances are: the forgiveness of sins, and true knowledge of the Father.

John is reassuring rather than rebuking his readers, and he does this by using a poetic structure that is built on patterns of three and that is presented in two parts, so that verse 14 is a poetic restating of verses 12-13, then followed by a contrasting pair of concluding lines.

Sadly, many English translations of the New Testament (for example, the Authorised Version, the Revised Standard Version and the Living Bible) miss the poetic presentation of these three verses by presenting them as three prose verses rather than as three stanzas, the first two in three paired lines each, and the third in two single paired lines:

12 Γράφω ὑμῖν, τεκνία,
ὅτι ἀφέωνται ὑμῖν αἱ ἁμαρτίαι διὰ τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ.

13 Γράφω ὑμῖν, πατέρες,
ὅτι ἐγνώκατε τὸν ἀπ' ἀρχῆς.

Γράφω ὑμῖν, νεανίσκοι,
ὅτι νενικήκατε τὸν πονηρόν.

14ἔγραψα ὑμῖν, παιδία,
ὅτι ἐγνώκατε τὸν πατέρα.

ἔγραψα ὑμῖν, πατέρες,
ὅτι ἐγνώκατε τὸν ἀπ' ἀρχῆς.

ἔγραψα ὑμῖν, νεανίσκοι,
ὅτι ἰσχυροί ἐστε

καὶ ὁ λόγος τοῦ θεοῦ ἐν ὑμῖν μένει
καὶ νενικήκατε τὸν πονηρόν.


I am writing to you, little children,
because your sins are forgiven on account of his name.

I am writing to you, fathers,
because you know him who is from the beginning.

I am writing to you, young people,
because you have conquered the evil one.

I write to you, children,
because you know the Father.

I write to you, fathers,
because you know him who is from the beginning.

I write to you, young people,
because you are strong

and the word of God abides in you,
and you have overcome the evil one.


‘I am writing’ and ‘I write’

The poetic structure of these verses is emphasised in the significant switch in tenses in the verb Γράφω (grapho, “I am writing”) from the present to the aorist.

The present tense of Γράφω (grapho) is used three times in verses 12-13, while the aorist tense ἔγραψα (egrapsa, I write) is used three times in verse 14. Some interpreters understand this change refers to two different writings, so that the present tense refers what is currently being written in I John, while the aorist refers to something written previously. Some interpreters believe this previous work is the Fourth Gospel. Others suggest II John, which means II John was written before I John. Others still suggest a “lost letter,” and some commentators have suggested the “source” that was supposed to underlie I John.

The content of the three aorist clauses is virtually a repetition of the three present clauses. If the author literally means that he wrote virtually the same things before to the same audience, why does he write them again and then repeat what he had written earlier as well?

Perhaps the author does not intend the change in tenses to refer to a previous work, but in fact refers to the same work he is now writing, I John itself. Perhaps the variation between the present tenses of the first part of the poem and the aorist tenses of the second part are intentional, stylistic, poetic variations on the part of the author, emphasising what he is saying through poetic repetition.

Three titles or categories

The opponents of the Johannine community have been described in the subsection we discussed last week as being “in the darkness,” “walking in the darkness” and having their eyes “blinded” by the darkness (I John 2: 11). The recipients of the letter, however, are loyal to the community and the teaching of the author, and they abide or remain in the light (2: 10). Their sins are forgiven through Christ, the revelation of the eternal life of the Father, who has conquered Satan. But, how many groups of people are addressed in 2: 12-14?

At first, it appears the author is addressing three groups or categories of believers in these poetic verses. Firstly, we have τεκνία (teknia, “little children”), who are also addressed in the second part as παιδία (paidia, “children”). Secondly, we have πατέρες (pateres, “fathers”); and finally we have νεανίσκοι (neaniskoi, “young people”). They are dealt with in two sequences: in verses 12-13 and then again in verse 14.

We could take these references literally, referring to different age groups. But we could also see the first group as new converts, the second as those who are spiritually mature, and the third as those who are moving towards maturity. But the order in which they are listed argues against this because there is no progression in the groups – either ascending from youngest to oldest, or descending from oldest to youngest.

On the other hand, we might also think that only one group is addressed in 2: 12-14, using three different titles. All believers are τεκνία (teknia, “little children”), because we are born again and our sins forgiven. All of us are πατέρες (pateres, “fathers”), because we believe in him who was from the beginning. And all are νεανίσκοι (neaniskoi, “young people”), because we are resisting the devil. This fits in with the poetic construction of these three verses.

Another interpretation suggests that two groups of people are being considered in I John 2: 12-14. They are first addressed as a whole – little children and children. Then they are addressed as two separate groups, fathers and young people. The author uses of τεκνία (teknia) elsewhere in I John to refer to the entire readership, rather than a select group within it (see 2: 1, 2: 28, 3: 7, 3: 18, 4: 4, and 5: 21). The same is true of παιδία (paidia), which is used of everyone in 2: 18, and which probably is a stylistic variation with τεκνία (teknia).

On the other hand, the use of πατέρες (pateres) and νεανίσκοι (neaniskoi) to refer to groups with the Christian community is appropriate, because nowhere in the New Testament does either term refer to the Church at large or to the entire community of Christians.

We could conclude that the first clause in each group of three, introduced by τεκνία (teknia) in 2: 12 and παιδία (paidia) in 2: 14, addresses the entire group of readers, while the next two terms address groups within the readership. Whether these subgroups are distinguished by actual age or by spiritual maturity is not entirely clear; either could be the case and the evidence from the text is inconclusive.

The children or little children

The first group are the children or little children. These may be taken as general terms of address for the whole Christian group, which includes both the fathers and the young men (see I John 2: 1, 18, 28).

Having begun a direct exhortation to his readers in 2: 1 with the address τεκνία μου (teknia mou, “my little children”), the author now continues that exhortation.

In 2: 12, the author says: “I am writing to you, little children, because your sins are forgiven on account of his name.” He addresses his readers directly as little children, and assures them that their sins are forgiven. Elsewhere in I John, the term “little children” refers to the entire group of readers rather than a select group (I John 2: 1, 2: 28, 3: 7, 3; 18, 4; 4, 5: 21). Thus in 2: 12-14, it is not three distinct groups that are addressed, but the whole group, who are little children, followed by two sub-groups, addressed as fathers and young people. It is not clear whether these two sub-groups are distinguished by age or spiritual maturity.

The fathers

Those addressed as fathers are more likely to have been Christians for a lengthier period of time, rather than aged or elderly members of the community. They are appropriately connected with knowledge of the One who is from the beginning.

The young people

Those addressed as young people, are more likely to be recent Christians, than being youthful in years. They are appropriately connected with temptation and strength in overcoming Satan.

‘Because’ or ‘so that’

A poetic and dramatic impact is provided by the use of the word ὅτι (oti, because), which follows all six occurrences of the verb Γράφω (grapho) in 2: 12-14. But another difficulty in verses 12-14 arises because this word, translated as “because,” may also mean “[so] that.” This would give a different connotation to what is being said, leaving the author rebuking rather than reassuring his readers.

By using the word ὅτι (oti) after each of the six occurrences of the present and aorist forms of the verb Γράφω (grapho), the author gives his reason for writing to his readers, underlining his assurance to them that runs throughout the letter. He is concerned that some of his readers could accept the claims of the opponents (see I John 1: 6, 8, and 10). The author’s counter-claims in 1: 7, 9, and 2: 1 are intended to strengthen the readers and to reassure them that their sins are forgiven.

The author is dealing with a community discouraged by the controversy that has arisen within it, a community in need of exhortation.

2: 12, αὐτοῦ (autou, “his”):

This pronoun almost certainly refers to Christ. The last third person reference (2: 8) was understood as a reference to Christ, and this in turn goes back to the use of ἐκεῖνος (ekeinos, literally “that one”) in 2: 6, which is clearly a reference to Christ.

2: 13, τὸν ἀπ' ἀρχῆς (ton ap’ arches, “him who has been from the beginning”):

It could be argued that the expression “him who is from the beginning” refers either to God or to Jesus Christ, and that the use of the masculine singular article τὸν (ton) as a personal pronoun could refer either to God, who has existed “from the beginning of time,” or to Christ.

But since God the Father is clearly referred to in the next verse, a reference here to Christ is more likely. The entire phrase is so similar to Ὃ ἦν ἀπ' ἀρχῆς (ho en ap’ arches, “what was from the beginning”) in 1: 1, that it is most likely that we have a reference here to Christ. When the same phrase is used in I John 2: 14b, it follows an explicit reference to the Father in 2: 14a, resulting in a pointless repetition if the Father is being referred to.

The phrase ἀπ' ἀρχῆς (ap’ arches, “from the beginning”) occurs twice before (in I John 1: 1 and 2: 7), and twice before it refers to the beginning of Christ’s earthly career and ministry, consistent with the stress the author places on the significance of Christ’s earthly career in contrast to his opponents. And so, ἀπ' ἀρχῆς here should be understood as a reference to the beginning of Christ’s self-revelation to his disciples in his earthly ministry.

2: 13, τὸν πονηρόν (ton poneron, “the evil one”):

Those who are addressed as fathers have remained faithful to the apostolic testimony about who Christ is. When the author turns to those he addresses as young people, the emphasis is on their victory over the evil one (i.e., Satan, a theme which will reappear later, in I John 5: 4-5, where it is apparent that all true Christians are “overcomers”).

In contrast to τὸν ἀπ' ἀρχῆς (ton ap’ arches, “him who is from the beginning”) in 2: 13a, which refers to Christ, we encounter τὸν πονηρόν (ton poneron, “the evil one”) for the first time here in 2: 13b. The phrase is used in the Fourth Gospel (John 17: 15) to refer to Satan, and that is its meaning here and in each of the four remaining occurrences in this letter (I John 2: 14, 3: 12; 5: 18; and 5: 19).

2: 14, poetic repetition:

In this verse, the author repeats himself for the sake of poetic emphasis.

In the second part of the verse, in a two-line stanza, the author introduces a new thought introduced concerning the word of God which abides in believers. Compare this with the words of Christ in John 5: 38: “nor do you have his [God’s] word abiding in you, because you do not believe the one [Jesus] whom he [God] sent”).

The meaning of and the reference to ὁ λόγος τοῦ θεοῦ (ho logos tou Theou, “the word of God”) in verse 14 is worth noting too. The last previous occurrence of this term was in I John 1: 10, in the phrase ὁ λόγος αὐτοῦ (ho logos autou, “his word”). There, the phrase refers not to the personal Logos in the prologue to the Fourth Gospel, but to the phrase at the end of I John 1: 1, which describes the message about eternal life revealed by Christ to his disciples from the beginning of his self-revelation during his earthly ministry. To be consistent with that, the phrase here should be interpreted in the same way.

The ruins of the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus, with the Basilica of Saint John on the hill of Ayasoluk in the background (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Part 2: I John 2: 15-27.

15 Μὴ ἀγαπᾶτε τὸν κόσμον μηδὲ τὰ ἐν τῷ κόσμῳ. ἐάν τις ἀγαπᾷ τὸν κόσμον, οὐκ ἔστιν ἡ ἀγάπη τοῦ πατρὸς ἐν αὐτῷ: 16 ὅτι πᾶν τὸ ἐν τῷ κόσμῳ, ἡ ἐπιθυμία τῆς σαρκὸς καὶ ἡ ἐπιθυμία τῶν ὀφθαλμῶν καὶ ἡ ἀλαζονεία τοῦ βίου, οὐκ ἔστιν ἐκ τοῦ πατρὸς ἀλλ' ἐκ τοῦ κόσμου ἐστίν. 17 καὶ ὁ κόσμος παράγεται καὶ ἡ ἐπιθυμία αὐτοῦ, ὁ δὲ ποιῶν τὸ θέλημα τοῦ θεοῦ μένει εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα.

18 Παιδία, ἐσχάτη ὥρα ἐστίν, καὶ καθὼς ἠκούσατε ὅτι ἀντίχριστος ἔρχεται, καὶ νῦν ἀντίχριστοι πολλοὶ γεγόνασιν: ὅθεν γινώσκομεν ὅτι ἐσχάτη ὥρα ἐστίν. 19 ἐξ ἡμῶν ἐξῆλθαν, ἀλλ' οὐκ ἦσαν ἐξ ἡμῶν: εἰ γὰρ ἐξ ἡμῶν ἦσαν, μεμενήκεισαν ἂν μεθ' ἡμῶν: ἀλλ' ἵνα φανερωθῶσιν ὅτι οὐκ εἰσὶν πάντες ἐξ ἡμῶν. 20 καὶ ὑμεῖς χρῖσμα ἔχετε ἀπὸ τοῦ ἁγίου, καὶ οἴδατε πάντες. 21 οὐκ ἔγραψα ὑμῖν ὅτι οὐκ οἴδατε τὴν ἀλήθειαν, ἀλλ' ὅτι οἴδατε αὐτήν, καὶ ὅτι πᾶν ψεῦδος ἐκ τῆς ἀληθείας οὐκ ἔστιν. 22 Τίς ἐστιν ὁ ψεύστης εἰ μὴ ὁ ἀρνούμενος ὅτι Ἰησοῦς οὐκ ἔστιν ὁ Χριστός; οὗτός ἐστιν ὁ ἀντίχριστος, ὁ ἀρνούμενος τὸν πατέρα καὶ τὸν υἱόν. 23 πᾶς ὁ ἀρνούμενος τὸν υἱὸν οὐδὲ τὸν πατέρα ἔχει: ὁ ὁμολογῶν τὸν υἱὸν καὶ τὸν πατέρα ἔχει. 24 ὑμεῖς ὃ ἠκούσατε ἀπ' ἀρχῆς ἐν ὑμῖν μενέτω: ἐὰν ἐν ὑμῖν μείνῃ ὃ ἀπ' ἀρχῆς ἠκούσατε, καὶ ὑμεῖς ἐν τῷ υἱῷ καὶ ἐν τῷ πατρὶ μενεῖτε. 25 καὶ αὕτη ἐστὶν ἡ ἐπαγγελία ἣν αὐτὸς ἐπηγγείλατο ἡμῖν, τὴν ζωὴν τὴν αἰώνιον.

26 Ταῦτα ἔγραψα ὑμῖν περὶ τῶν πλανώντων ὑμᾶς. 27 καὶ ὑμεῖς τὸ χρῖσμα ὃ ἐλάβετε ἀπ' αὐτοῦ μένει ἐν ὑμῖν, καὶ οὐ χρείαν ἔχετε ἵνα τις διδάσκῃ ὑμᾶς: ἀλλ' ὡς τὸ αὐτοῦ χρῖσμα διδάσκει ὑμᾶς περὶ πάντων, καὶ ἀληθές ἐστιν καὶ οὐκ ἔστιν ψεῦδος, καὶ καθὼς ἐδίδαξεν ὑμᾶς, μένετε ἐν αὐτῷ.

There are three different genres in the Johannine literature in the New Testament – the Fourth Gospel, the three Johannine Letters, and the Book of Revelation – with at least three completely different styles of writing.

Raymond Brown would add a fourth category, describing I John not as a letter or an epistle but as an exhortation interpreting the main themes of the Fourth Gospel.

The style in I John is so different it is often difficult to follow the thoughts. However, it helps in studying I John to notice how thoughts are grouped into threes throughout the epistle. Some of the groups of three are very obvious – such as the grouping of the children of God into three categories (little children, young men, and fathers) in the poem we have just been looking at (I John 2: 12-14).

Other groups of three can be found through careful reading. These include the repetition of the phrase, “If we say” in chapter 1. In these cases, the writer repeats an expression or thought three times. He often divides sentences or phrases into three clauses – and in this section we find another example of this in verse 16, with “the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches,” or as other translations describe them, “the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.”

The world, the flesh and devil, indeed!

Verses 15-27:

In the poem (I John 2: 12-14), we have seen where the little children, young men, and fathers, whose sins have been forgiven, who know the Father, who know Christ, and who are strong, are told that the word of God remains in them and that they have conquered the evil one.

In these verses we move on to the consequences of that faith and that strength in faith. The thought of the evil one who has been conquered in the last section leads to this section and to the writer’s thoughts on the domain of that evil one in the world.

In his last discourse in the Fourth Gospel, Jesus said that he was not of this world, and that his followers should not be of this world. Any love of the world runs contrary to being a follower of Christ. By the abiding word of God, those who are young in the faith may well overcome the wicked one’s attempts to divert by false teaching.

But, what about his attempts to divert them by using the influences of the world?

This is a particular snare John anticipates and his remedy is to thoroughly define this snare in order to expose what it is in its true character.

Verses 15-17:

“Do not love the world or the things in the world. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world; for all that is in the world – the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches – comes not from the Father but from the world. And the world and its desire are passing away, but those who do the will of God live for ever.”

The three characteristics of the world outlined in I John are well-known as concupiscence, envy and pride. I am always tempted by lust, money and power, and know it. This is not, by any manes, an exhaustive list of the snares awaiting us in the world. But they were certainly high on the list of the temptations facing the new Christians in the Johannine community in Ephesus, the largest port in the Eastern Mediterranean at the time, and the centre of the cult of Artemis.

John’s κόσμος:

The statue of Pythagoras by Nikolaos Ikaris (1989) on the harbour front in Pythagóreio on the island of Samos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

John was exiled on the island of Patmos, south of Samos, the birthplace and home of the philosopher, Pythagoras (Πυθαγόρας) of Samos. John would have been familiar with Samos, and a journey from Patmos to Ephesus involved stopping off at Samos. For Pythagoras, it was number or mathematical principle that which gives order, harmony, rhythm, and beauty to the world. This harmony keeps a balance both in the cosmos and in the soul.

Pythagoras ascribed a certain musical energy to everything to be found in the world, and he was the first to call the heavens κόσμος (kosmos, cosmos), a term implying a universe with orderly movements and events, because they are adorned with life and were created by a kind of harmony. For the Pythagoreans, harmony and balance was the principle that determines the order of the cosmos. For example, they divided all numbers into a pair of odd and even numbers. This Pythagorean perspective on duality was extended to paired elements in the world – such as left and right; finite and infinite; one and many; light and darkness – and this is reflected throughout the Johannine writings.

The κόσμος of Pythagoras is the κόσμος in John 3: 16, the verse Martin Luther called “the Gospel in miniature”: For God so loved the world (κόσμος, kosmos) that he gave (sent) his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life” (Οὕτως γὰρ ἠγάπησεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν κόσμον, ὥστε τὸν υἱὸν τὸν μονογενῆ ἔδωκεν, ἵνα πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων εἰς αὐτὸν μὴ ἀπόληται ἀλλ' ἔχῃ ζωὴν αἰώνιον).

The word κόσμος is also used in the Greek of the time to describe the arrangement of the stars, “the heavenly hosts,” as the ornament of the heavens (I Peter 3: 3); the circle of the earth, the earth itself; the inhabitants of the earth, the human family. The word κόσμος is also used for the Gentiles as contrasted to the Jews (see Romans 11: 12) or for all saved by Christ (see John 1: 29; 3: 17; 6: 33; 12: 47; I Corinthians 4: 9; II Corinthians 5: 19). And the word κόσμος is also used to describe the ungodly multitude, the whole mass of humanity alienated from God and hostile to Christ; world affairs and all things earthly; the whole circle of earthly goods, endowments riches, advantages and pleasures which are hollow, frail and fleeting, yet stir our desire, tempt us away from God and are obstacles between us and Christ.

It is in the last sense, rather than its use in John 3: 16, that the word κόσμος is now used in this passage in I John: “for all that is in the world – the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches – comes not from the Father but from the world” (NRSV).

All that is in the world is summed up by three moral principles originating in the human heart: the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life. I want what I see … I get what I want … and me, me, me. The characteristic snares of idolatry in the Old Testament were these three temptations. The worship of Baal and Astarte, and later of Artemis in the Ephesus of the Johannine community, gave religious licence to sexual promiscuity with the supposed promise of increased material prosperity and power – the triple temptations of pleasure, possessions and power.

Of course, the issue is not whether we have pleasure, power or possessions, but whether we love them and whether we are governed by the means of getting them. If so, the love of the Father is not in us. We may well have been the recipients of God’s love, but it is not in us in a practical and experiential way that is enjoyed in communion with God.

Verse 18:

“[Little] Children, it is the last hour! As you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. From this we know that it is the last hour” (NRSV).

Little Children

The word for children here is παιδία (paidía, “little children”), from the word παιδίον (paidíon), meaning a young child, a little boy or girl, an infant, one who is recently born. Here we find an emphasis on the readers as little ones who are in need of care, nurture, direction and responsible instruction and discipline. The gifts of the Holy Spirit and the provisions of grace do not remove the need for personal exercise and faithfulness.

last hour

Having considered the transitory nature of the world, the writer now starts to consider its end. The “last day” is referred to seven times in the Fourth Gospel. In the New Testament, the phrase “last days” refers to the last days of the age. Peter and Jude use similar expressions denoting the same time. In I Peter 1: 5 we have “the last time” (καιρός ἔσχατος, kairos eschatos), and in Jude 18, “in the last time” (Ἐπ' ἐσχάτου [τοῦ] χρόνου, ep’ eschatou [tou] chronou).

The apostles expected his coming at any moment – as can be recognised by the use of expressions such as, “we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord” (I Thessalonians 4: 15) or when Christ spoke of the possibility of John remaining until he come (John 21: 22-23).

But here, in the last hour or last time, we have a working-out of John’s partially realised eschatology. The present is the last hour, since the apocalyptic struggle between Satan and Christ is already being fought out between the false propagandists and the true Christians.

Many antichrists:

I John presents the false teachers of the time in a reinterpretation of the traditional, one, monstrous personification of evil.

The word “antichrists” is used exclusively in the Johannine letters. The prefix “anti-” can mean both “instead of” and “against.” People who do not necessarily falsely claim to be Christ can be characteristically antichrists – not necessarily instead of him, for example by claiming to be the Messiah, but against him by their false teaching and practice.

Verse 19:

“They went out from us, but they did not belong to us; for if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us. But by going out they made it plain that none of them belongs to us.”

In this passage, those who are against Christ, the antichrists, are former nominal Christians who have openly left the Johannine community and the Church. They have joined forces with the great liar, Satan, by denying that Jesus is the Christ, come in the flesh (see I John 4: 3). If one denies the Son, then one denies the Father, because the Son is our chief means of knowing the Father.

out from us, belong to us, remained with us

Here again we meet the writers grouping of concepts in threes. Those members of the Johannine community who had been part of the Church for a while, but have now left it, have broken away and have spoilt the unity of the Church. Their separation from the Church and the truth shows had never really been with the community in truth; their teachings and practices make it apparent that they were never truly part of the Church.

Verses 20, 21:

“But you have been anointed by the Holy One, and all of you have knowledge. I write to you, not because you do not know the truth, but because you know it, and you know that no lie comes from the truth.”

Here again, we have a Johannine grouping of three. With anointing by the Holy One, we have knowledge [of all things], you know the truth, and no lie comes from the truth.

anointed

The word chrisma literally refers to the oil used for anointing Old Testament priests, kings, prophets and those cleansed from leprosy. In the New Testament, Christ (Acts 10: 38) and individual Christians (II Corinthians 1: 21-22) are anointed with the Holy Spirit.

The words “unction” (chrisma), “Christ” and “Christian” have the same root. “Christ” means “anointed.”

The Holy One

If, as Raymond Brown suggests, John has hardly any need to tell his readers, his children, that they have been anointed by the Holy One, there are still questions about who “the Holy One” agion refers to. Is this God, God the Father, the Son, or the Holy Spirit. Or all three? Or the holy one, the saint, who is the leader or founder of the Johannine community, who has baptised or anointed them?

However we read it, by being anointed from the Holy One, the little children are inwardly marked out as belonging to the Church, the Body of Christ. By staying “with us” they were outwardly marked out as belonging to the Church.

We have all heard someone say, “I don’t need to go to Church because I have the Holy Spirit within me and he teaches me everything I need”? This is certainly not the intent of what John says. He speaks to young believers who were amongst the “us” he was “with” and not to individual Christians.

Knowledge or know all things

The words at the end of verse 20 translated as “all of you have knowledge” are rendered in some manuscripts as “and you know all things.” However, the KJV and ASV are translations that are based on this alternative reading.

John goes on to say that it is because of this full knowledge that he is writing to them (verse 20) and from this they know that no lie comes from the truth.

Christ promised his disciples that when the Holy Spirit comes, that Holy Spirit would guide them into all the truth: “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth …” (John 16: 13). Because they possessed the Spirit, they had the capacity for knowledge, to know all things, for wisdom.

There are two different words for “know”. The word used here is the one for intuitive knowledge, as opposed to knowledge acquired by learning. The Holy Spirit gives the inward capacity for judging whether what is taught is true or false. The false teachers do not have this ability because they do not have the Holy Spirit. But the youngest believers have both.

Verse 21

The anointing with the Spirit enables individual Christians to adhere to the truth of the teaching they have received and this maintains them in eternal life, the intimate knowledge of the Father and the Son.

the truth

The truth is referred to in a variety of ways throughout I John:

● 1:6 refers to practising the truth;
● 1:8 and 2:4 refer to the truth being in us
● 2:21 refers firstly to knowing the truth and secondly to a lie being not of the truth
● 3:18 refers to loving in truth
● 3:19 refers to us being of the truth
● 4:6 refers to the spirit of truth
● and in 5:6 the Spirit is the truth

The truth enables anything to be seen in its right proportions, while falsehood puts things out of proportion, inflates me out of proportion and minimises God out of proportion. If I have a false conception of God, how can I know the truth? This is the case with the apostate teacher. Truth defines relationships and enables anything to be seen in its right proportions.

We talk about the Spirit as the truth and of Christ as the truth, enabling us to see and comprehend everything in its right place relative to God. The specific context here is in reference to any teaching about Christ.

Verses 22, 23:

Who is the liar but the one who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, the one who denies the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son has the Father; everyone who confesses the Son has the Father also. (verses 22, 23).

In these verses we have another Johannine listing of threes, this time three distinct denials:

1, denying that Jesus is the Christ.
2, denying the Father and the Son;
3, denying the Son.

In the first case, the one who is denying is a liar. In the second case, the one who is denying is antichrist. In the third case, the one who is denying does not have the Father either.

The first case is specific – “denies that…”. The other two are general – “denies…” – without saying exactly what is denied concerning the Father and the Son. In the third case a clause is added to show that confession is the opposite side of denial. Concerning the Son one must confess. It is not satisfactory merely to refrain from denying.

Those John is writing to are filled with the gift of the Spirit’s knowledge, and this is the Spirit of truth who guides into all the truth (John 14: 17; 15: 26; 16: 13). So there is no place here for Satan’s lie to take hold. The lies of the antichrist struck at the very foundation of their faith.

In John’s day, the Gnostic teaching, perhaps of Cerinthus, was leading people astray. He taught that Jesus only became the Christ after his anointing by the Spirit at his baptism, and that it left him at Calvary. So, he was the Christ, the anointed one of God, only during his earthly ministry, and apart from this he was just a man.

Outwardly these heretics may not have denied the Father, but when they denied the Son, they automatically denied the Father, as John makes clear in his Gospel. For the Lord Jesus manifested the Father completely, so much so that He could say: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14: 9; and note verse 7, also 8: 19). Our only approach to the Father is by the Son (John 14: 6), and they are so united that to deny the Son is to deny the Father at the same time.

Verses 24, 25:

“Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you will abide in the Son and in the Father. And this is what he has promised us, eternal life” (verses 24, 25).

what you have heard

I John uses emphatic pronouns in a beautiful way here, contrasting the young believers with the antichrists.

From the beginning

Compared to the phrase “from the beginning” in I John 1: 1, there is a difference in the use of this phrase here. In the opening verse, it was the beginning of the manifestation of eternal life in this world in the Person of Christ. Here it relates to the beginning of the spiritual history of each individual. But then, my spiritual history starts with the incarnate Christ in the world. Here, the concept of the Spirit teaching the individual is linked too with the authoritative guide of tradition: “… what you have heard from the beginning.”

Abide

The writer goes on to remind his readers that belief in the truth of God is of little good to them unless they live by it. What lays at the basis of our spiritual history is the same thing that will sustain us throughout our Christian lives. John’s focus is the substance of Christianity – not merely that we once believed (past tense) but that we believe (present tense). Not merely that we started with a right apprehension of Christ, having trusted him as Saviour as presented in the Gospel, but allowing that word to remain in us as sustaining power. If … then. If that word abides in us, then we abide in the Son and in the Father.

life eternal

The wondrous promises of God, which are found in all their fullness in Christ, will be enjoyed and never have an end, for resurrection life means eternal life. The writer reminds his readers that this is one of God’s great promises to the believer, and we have here the only occurrence of ἐπαγγελία (epangelia, promise) in the Johannine writings.

The writer does not just say that he has promised eternal life to us – but the preceding thoughts define what eternal life means in this setting. It is not the future possession of eternal life, nor is it the present possession of eternal life, but it is the practical possession of eternal life. It is only practically enjoyed when his word abides in us and when we abide in the Son and in the Father. This is eternal life.

How reminiscent this is of Christ’s prayer in John 17: 3: “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” Not just knowing about them, not just saying I know them because I believed and I am been saved, but enjoying that practical knowledge, that intimacy, that abiding. And this is Christianity at its highest and its best, this is the proper portion of the little children, the youngest believers in Christ!

Verses 26-27:

“I write these things to you concerning those who would deceive you. As for you, the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and so you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things, and is true and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, abide in him” (verses 26, 27).

As a guardian of those under his care, John warns them against the false gnostic teaching that would lead them into error. At the same time he reminds them of the teaching of the great revealer of truth, the Holy Spirit, which if held tenaciously, would prevent this, and so they could “abide” or “remain” in Christ.

It is worth noting that throughout this passage, while the Spirit may be implied in different verses, the author of I John avoids using the Johannine term for the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete. The Spirit is implied throughout, but Is the author avoiding this because of the Spirit-based language and terminology used by his opponents, the secessionists?

And yet these last two verses summarise what John has said to the little children – calling to mind and drawing together what he has already said so far. He may be repeating himself and may appear to be repetitious, but then good teaching often needs to be repeated and at times even to be repetitious.

I John 2: 28-29, The servants become the Children of God

28 Καὶ νῦν, τεκνία, μένετε ἐν αὐτῷ, ἵνα ἐὰν φανερωθῇ σχῶμεν παρρησίαν καὶ μὴ αἰσχυνθῶμεν ἀπ' αὐτοῦ ἐν τῇ παρουσίᾳ αὐτοῦ.

29 ἐὰν εἰδῆτε ὅτι δίκαιός ἐστιν, γινώσκετε ὅτι καὶ πᾶς ὁ ποιῶν τὴν δικαιοσύνην ἐξ αὐτοῦ γεγέννηται.

And now, little children, abide in him, so that when he is revealed we may have confidence and not be put to shame before him at his coming.

If you know that he is righteous, you may be sure that everyone who does right has been born of him.

Placing these two verses

Some commentators think the final verses of this chapter, verses 28-29 are linked with verses 26-27. However, most say this is not the case, and they see I John 2: 28 to 3: 10 as one whole unit.

The first part, 2: 28 to 3: 3, deals with the Children of God, with verses 28-29 introducing what is being said in 3: 1-3.

Verse 28: Children of God:

The disciples, who have been called first as servants or slaves, were raised, in the Last Discourse in the Fourth Gospel, to the rank of friends of Christ (John 15: 15). Now, in I John, they move even closer, from being friends of Christ to being Children of God.

Then in Verse 28, the writer turns to the idea of union with God and with Christ at his coming. In the Fourth Gospel, the parousia or the return of Christ at the end of time is not a frequent thought. But I John makes the connection between realised and final eschatology: while Christ is present to each Christian, the fullness of union is only possible with his final return.

Our present union with Christ enables us as Christians to face with confidence Christ’s return in judgment, either in death or at the end of world.

Verse 28: “abide in him” (NRSV), “remain in him” (RSV):

John calls on believers to abide in Christ, so that when he returns we may have confidence before him. Those who abide in him will have no need to shrink from him in shame at his coming. What does it mean that he is coming? The Greek conveys the idea of someone returning who is not now physically present. Christ is coming to take home those who abide in him.

What does it mean to abide in Christ? The themes of divine indwelling, keeping the commandments and abiding love are at the heart of the passage on the vine and the branches in the Last Discourse in the Fourth Gospel. There Jesus says:

“Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete (John 15: 4-11).”

To abide in Christ means bearing spiritual fruit, and that there will be growth (John 15: 4). Abiding in Christ means we are obedient to what he teaches, to his commands (John 15: 10, 14).

Verse 29: “born of him” (NRSV), “begotten of him” (RSV):

I think John really answers the question for us in verse 29. Those who practice righteousness are those who abide in him. Why is this? Because if God is righteous we can be sure that everyone who practices righteousness has been born of him. This righteousness is evidence that someone is a believer.

What does it mean to be born of God? The idea of being “born of him” or “begotten of him” probably refers to the Father, despite the confusing shifting between the Father and the Son. And this idea is the presupposition of acting righteously – the Father’s love is always the source of sanctification.

Two pairs of verses in the Fourth Gospel give clear pictures of what it means to be born of God.

● John 1: 12-13: verse 12 says those who receive Christ and who believe in his name are given the power to become children of God. The Greek word use there for “power,” exousia, literally means power of choice, liberty of doing as one pleases, with permission, authority, privilege and power in the power of him whose will and commands must be submitted to by others and obeyed. John 1: 13 says those who believe are born not of blood, the will of the flesh, nor the will of man, but of God and God alone.

● John 3: 3, 5-6: When Jesus is talking to Nicodemus, he says in verse 3 you must be born again, and that without being born again no-one can see the kingdom of God. We must be born of the Spirit.

Next week: I John 3 1-24

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay is based on notes prepared for a Bible study in a tutorial group with MTh students on Wednesday 19 October 2011.